How this Utah ghost town helped inspire Disney’s ‘Moana’

Posted at 10:02 PM, Nov 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-22 09:36:56-05

SALT LAKE CITY — Disney's latest film, "Moana," is inspired by the Polynesian culture. In their quest to navigate the story of the South Pacific Islands, filmmakers called on cultural experts, including a Utah Native, to make sure they get it right.

Polynesian princess, Moana, sets sail with sidekick Maui on a mission to save her people. This is Disney's first animated venture to the South Pacific and a very personal one for story artist David Derrick, who is of Samoan descent.

"The Polynesians had the largest cultural footprint of any culture prior to European expansion," Derrick said. "They were able to navigate the Pacific with the art and culture of wayfinding. For me, that was super important to let people understand that."

Before Moana's journey could begin, Derrick made a journey himself. It was a journey that brought him to Iosepa, Utah.

Iosepa was a town in Skull Valley where early Polynesians were sent in the late 1800s to establish an agricultural community. The community's farms ultimately failed. All that remains there today is a cemetery.

"I went there and I found the marker of Simeafua, of my ancestor and I made a rubbing," Derrick said. "I put that rubbing above my desk every single day to remind me why I was making a movie. It was very personal. It was both an apology and a thank you. First, to thank you for an incredible culture and an apology for how you were treated."

Derrick became part of what Disney called "the Oceanic Brain Trust," ensuring every detail on the film was accurately portrayed.

During the five-year process, directors traveled to the South Pacific to study the culture.

"Story artists build the story like eight times and we throw away most of our work. We do over 100,000 drawings," Derrick said.

Drawings that made the cut were close to his heart. Like the scene where Moana sings the anthem "How Far I'll Go," written by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

"Her ancestors serve as kind of a compass and a guide in her life," Derrick said.

Another character he took on, the demi-god Maui, was voiced by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

Maui is a literal ancestor for some Polynesians, including Derrick. He's his 37th great-grandfather.

No actual photos exist, but Derrick imagined him in traditional tattoos, called "tataus."

"We started playing around and thought 'Well he's a demi-god. Maybe he could move them'," Derrick said.

There have been some criticisms about the film, particularly about Maui's depiction as an obese man.

"There are so many different ways and so many different lenses to see Maui through," said Jacob Fitisemanu, Natl. Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander Network. "The fact that it's bringing up that conversation I think is important so that we can tell that story and let the Disney version be exactly that - an entertaining, artful version of our story," said Fitisemanu. "As a father, I don't feel that it's Disney's job to teach my kid those stories."

For Derrick, the voyage of creating Moana fulfilled a dream.

"One of the most bittersweet moments is when I was finished on the film, taking down the rubbing and just kinda saying 'You know, Simeafua Savea. I hope I honored your memory. I hope I honored your culture.'"

Moana sets sails in theaters November 23rd.